What is the Disney College Program?
| TBS Staff
Are you ready to discover your college program?
The Walt Disney World College Program is a national paid-internship program owned and operated by the Walt Disney Company, and it could be your ticket into a career at the Magic Kingdom. College-age students can apply to take part in a program that is highly competitive and quite rigorous. But it could also give you a distinct advantage in becoming a part of Disney's unique culture and diverse community. If you’re a college student with an interest in joining one of the world’s best-known and most beloved entertainment brands, and you don’t mind answering to a giant mouse, the Disney College Program could be just what you’re looking for.
And for a sense of what the Disney College Program is really like, we spoke with program graduate, Jennifer Tatum. Jennifer is a professional substitute teacher, a mother of three, a wife of one, and a storyteller living near the shores of Lake Michigan. Jennifer earned her Ductorate degree — the highest credential bestowed upon Disney University graduates — in the summer of 1993.
For you Disney history buffs, back then, Disney was fresh off a Best Picture Oscar nomination for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin was red hot, and The Lion King was on the near horizon. As Jennifer remembers, “Disney was right at the forefront of innovating with CGI in animation.”
Jennifer brings us a first-hand look at the Disney curriculum, culture and experience directly from what she describes as “the epicenter” of innovation in entertainment, media and animated film production. If you’re interested in applying for Disney’s College Program, be sure to read about Jennifer’s experiences. We believe they are quite illuminating.
Also, be aware that spots in this program are extremely limited, the application process is challenging, and the program is demanding. But if you do get it, you’ll learn firsthand whether a job with Disney is right for you, and you’ll get a leg up on the competition as you work to build a Disney career.
Check out our profile of the Disney College Program here below and continue on for answers to your biggest questions about getting a Disney education.
Disney College Program
(Kissimmee, Florida & Anaheim, California)
If you’ve ever dreamt of running away from it all, and living at Disney World, the Disney College Program might be the real-life answer.
The paid, semester-long internship program allows students to live just outside Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, or the Disneyland Resort in California, while earning college credit at Disney parks and resorts through a combination of on-the-job experience, shadowing, and seminars.
The Disney College program offers three educational formats for students to choose from:
- Spotlight On: These standalone sessions focus on specific topics related to Disney’s business and operations, including marketing, entertainment, costuming, and Disney heritage.
- Discover Disney: This experience focuses on the operations and management of the resorts and the hospitality side of Disney, and includes tours, a backstage view of performances, and discussion on both the guest and non-guest areas of the resorts.
- Disney Exploration Seminars: In these seminars, students develop in-depth knowledge on key topics related to Disney’s business. Seminars cover topics such as communications, event operations, hospitality and guest services, animal sciences, and leadership. Each seminar includes four two-hour classes, occurring once per week.
While enrolled in the Disney College program, students will work in front-line roles at the resort. This work covers the cost of tuition and residence, and comes with a modest paycheck.
Additionally, while participating in the Disney College Program, students can continue to take online courses through their university of enrollment, and remain on track with their degree program.
For admission, applicants must currently be enrolled in an accredited college program or have graduated within the past 12 months, and must have approval from their university.
Read on for answers to your biggest questions about the Disney College Program and other Disney-sponsored educaitonal opportunities:
What is the Disney College Program?
The Disney College Program refers to an array of programs providing education, professional development, and paid internships through the Disney company. Founded in 1981, the educational sector of the Disney Company includes The Disney College Program for paid internships, the Disney University “cast member” training facilities, and a host of international programs included under the umbrella of the Walt Disney World International Exchange Program.
The program typically works alongside a traditional college degree program. Many traditional and online colleges have partnered with the Disney Company to give their students access to the Disney College Program. Roughly 5% of Disney employees have entered the company’s workforce through the Disney College Program.
For a quick overview:
- The Disney College Program is a national internship program for U.S. residents, and includes locations at both the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and the Disneyland Resort in California. This immersive experience — typically a semester in length — provides on-the-job training, housing, and college credits where eligible.
- The Disney University is the global training program for aspiring Disney “cast members” — employees who make up the expansive Disney team of performers, leaders, and skilled personnel. Most courses are administered on location at the Walt Disney World building adjacent to the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida; Burbank’s Team Disney Headquarters; and various learning facilities near both Disneyland Paris and Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
- The Walt Disney World International Exchange Program provides access to training programs and cast membership for international students through three distinct programs — the Academic Exchange Program; Cultural Representative Program; and the Cultural Exchange Program.
Though each of these experiences is distinguished by terms of eligibility and areas of focus, the Disney Company succeeds through a highly sophisticated measure of brand control, especially through its development of a well-defined employee culture. This begins with a thoughtfully constructed curriculum, immersive educational experiences, hands-on training, and focused professional development.
One feature that truly distinguishes a Disney education from a traditional campus experience is the compatibility between work and education. Disney University graduate Jennifer Tatum recalls:
The biggest difference between Disney dorms and university dorms is that work managers have the same goals as the school and educators do. Our education and our classes came first. Many of my friends in college struggled with a work/school balance because their employers weren’t concerned about their education priorities or schedules. But that was never an issue in the Disney College program because everybody agreed we were there to learn, and work was always in support of that.
What will I learn through the Disney College Program?
The Disney College Program offers students a combination of on-the-job experience, college coursework, and immersion. In most cases, you’ll have the chance to interact with individuals from around the world, reside in company-sponsored housing, and engage in paid internships at Disney theme parks and resorts. Disney divides this program into three key thematic priorities:
In other words, Disney College Programs give you an immersive experience — living on a Disney property, learning through Disney’s college-level educational programs, and earning income through a paid internship.
It bears noting that Disney University, not to be confused with the Disney College Program, is reserved for those who will ultimately go on to become Disney employees, or cast members. As a Disney University student, you’ll take courses in Heritage and Traditions; Personal and Professional Development; and On the Job Training.
Jennifer points out that the training and education you’ll receive through Disney is invaluable, regardless of where your career ultimately takes you. She explains:
The Disney classes didn’t correspond directly to my college degree program, but they were a huge benefit to me professionally. The Disney classes really taught customer service, gave me a strong work ethic, and helped me learn to put the job ahead of my personal needs and feelings while at work. At Disney, you cannot bring your personal problems to the workplace, and I definitely learned that lesson well.
Jennifer goes on to explain that at Disney, you must learn to be cheerful no matter what you’re experiencing in your personal life. Jennifer reveals that she grappled with a very serious health matter during her time at Disney, but she learned how to show up each day with a smile. Today, this skill is an absolute necessity in Jen’s work as a public school teacher. We’re guessing most educators can relate to just how useful this skill is.
How fast can I complete the Disney College Program?
The program is typically between five and seven months in length, or roughly the minimum length of a college semester. However, there are options for extending your program to a second semester. Moreover, you are eligible to apply for participation in the Disney program multiple times.
What is the Walt Disney World International Exchange Program?
The Walt Disney World International Exchange Program creates several access points to Disney education and Disney careers for students living outside of the United states. The Exchange Program is conducted through:
Are Disney College Programs accredited?
Disney College Programs are not technically accredited. Likewise, Disney University is not, itself, an accredited university. While the majority of Disney’s courses are developed and instructed by experienced learning professionals, Disney is neither regionally nor nationally accredited by a Department of Education-recognized institution.
However, in order to enroll at Disney University, you must be enrolled in an accredited college or university, or have graduated from an accredited institution in the last 12 months. Your Disney University education will usually occur either in tandem with your traditional college education or as a segment of your actual degree program. In fact, your college or university may have a partnership program with Disney College Programs or with Disney University allowing you to participate in a paid internship, or take Disney University training courses for college credits through your accredited college. You are strongly advised to consult an academic advisor before pursuing the Disney College Program to find out if your school has a partnership program with Disney, or if your degree program awards credits for your participation in a Disney internship.
Where are Disney College Programs taught?
Disney College Programs are instructed in-person in Anaheim, California near Disneyland, and in Lake Buena Vista, Florida near Walt Disney World. Classes are held in close proximity to their respective theme parks, allowing for students to be placed into real paid internship roles on actual Disney properties.
Disney College Program participants have the option of taking advantage of company-sponsored, park-adjacent student housing, but those living in proximity to the park may also commute to campus.
For those who plan to pursue professional training through Disney University, most instructor-led courses are administered on location at various Disney properties, including the Walt Disney World building adjacent to the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida; Burbank’s Team Disney Headquarters, and various learning facilities near both Disneyland Paris and Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
These on-site campus programs allow aspiring Disney professionals to access and experience real, operational Disney properties. It also places Disney University students into close proximity to Cast Member lots, which helps to facilitate internships and experiential professional development. In fact, all Disney College Program student interns, Walt Disney World International Program participants and newly hired Cast Members must attend an employee orientation program called Disney Traditions.
The Disney Traditions class “imparts the importance of Disney culture, heritage, values, and policies through media and group activities. This is the day where new Cast Members get their first sight of backstage. One of the most anticipated moments during ‘Traditions’ is when Mickey Mouse himself passes out the name tags to the new Cast Members.”
How can I apply to the Disney College Program and what is the acceptance rate?
The Disney College Program is highly competitive. In order to be eligible, you must be over the age of 18, you must be currently enrolled in an accredited college program, and you must have completed at least one semester at an accredited college or university; or have graduated from said institution within the last 12 months.
To be eligible for participation in the international program, “you must be currently enrolled in a college/university in the United States and possess unrestricted US work authorization. Typically, this means international students must be studying on an F-1 or J-1 visa.”
Disney advises that international students contact international student advisors for answers to eligibility questions.
If you meet the terms of eligibility, you’ll undergo a three-step application sequence that is more akin to a job interview than the typical college admissions process. This process includes:
- An Online Application
- A Web-based interview
- A Telephone Interview
Jennifer offers fair warning about this experience:
I didn’t have to pass any interviews to get into a university. But the interview process for the Disney College program was extensive and nerve-wracking. It was much more intensive and surprising than any college application process I’d ever experienced.
If you make it through all three stages of the interview, you can expect to wait a few more weeks to find out if you’ve been admitted. With more than 50,000 applicants every year, Disney only accepts about 12,000 new annual recruits. The competition for spots is fierce.
As part of your interview process, you’ll indicate the areas of the company that you’d most prefer to work. The wider your interest, the greater your chances of gaining admission. It pays to be open-minded at every step of the way in your Disney education, especially because you are likely to be assigned a role outside of your comfort area and academic focus.
To get started, apply online.
What is the Disney College Program like for students?
Disney College Program Paid Internships encompass an extremely broad range of working opportunities. One of the most unique dimensions of the Disney College Program is that you are unlikely to know exactly what role you’ll be playing until you arrive for your program. Once again, the best advice that you’ll hear from those who have been there is to keep an open mind. You may find yourself working an information booth at the Magic Kingdom, guiding visitors on an Animal Kingdom safari, selling ice cream in a food court, or shadowing a veteran Donald Duck.
In most cases, the hours will be long, the work will be demanding, and the compensation will be quite modest. So it’s important that you are prepared to love where you are, no matter what role you’re asked to play.
Disney also has fairly strict codes about culture, attire, and demeanor. It’s important to be a team player and to share Disney’s core values, as a brand, a corporate citizen, and a community of cast members. Embracing these dimensions will be an important part of your education and practical training, as well as your general happiness while working at the happiest place on Earth.
Of course, there’s nothing quite like taking a real peek behing the curtain. Jennifer offers a detailed look at a day in the life of a Disney College Program participant. Take a look and see if this sounds like the experience for you:
I tended to work late afternoon and evenings, so I would typically wake up in the morning, hang out by one of the apartment pools or attend class (if it was a class day). Then, when it was time for work, I would hop on the company-provided trolley and go to the cast-member entrance for the park I was assigned to. There, an always-smiling security guard would check my ID, and from there I’d immediately go to the costuming department where I would be given what to wear for my specific job at the location I was assigned to on that day.
After changing in our costume, Cast Members would take a very specific, behind-the-scenes path to our assigned attraction. The public would never see us going to or from work, only being at work. (At the Disney-MGM Studios, the rules were slightly relaxed because it is not uncommon to see very strange characters mixing on a real Hollywood set. So we had a little more freedom to travel. But in the Magic Kingdom, Cast Members would enter or exit at very precise locations so you’d never see a Tomorrowland Cast Member wandering through, say, Frontierland.)
We’d then spend the next eight hours interacting with people from literally all over the world. Some of the guests were having a great day, but some were not. But we always smiled, were always helpful, and if we didn’t speak the same language, we’d find a way to communicate — or find someone who could. Our job was to make every guest’s trip magical, no matter the barriers.
Sometimes I was fortunate enough to work parade crowd control, setting up the ropes and helping people while waiting for parades or fireworks to begin. I always enjoyed that the most because fireworks were my favorite, and Disney-MGM Studios always had the best fireworks in the park. Plus I loved seeing people’s surprised reactions. I loved seeing their day end with so much magic.
After the park closed, we’d return to costuming and we’d surrender our threads to the costuming Cast Member for cleaning. Leaving, we’d say goodbye to the still smiling security guard, take the Trolley home, and we were free to crash or enjoy whatever nightlife or entertainment we wanted.
By the way, I loved that I was not responsible for keeping track of or cleaning any part of my costume. Every Cast Member at Disney wears a costume, regardless of whether they served the public or not. For example, even the workers in the staff-only commissary wore costumes. Outside of Disney, we’d call that a uniform. But, Disney is very serious about treating all of life as a stage, and every employee has a part to play, and a costume to wear.
I would check my costume out, wear it, and turn it in. And the next day, it was always clean and pressed. And it was the same for every Disney Cast Member.
To learn more from students who’ve been there, check out this Facebook community page comprised of participants in, and graduates from, the Disney College Program.
What kinds of jobs can I get through a Disney College Program or through Disney University?
For many participants in the Disney College Program, the ultimate goal is a long-term career with the Disney Company. As noted above, roughly 5% of all Disney employees have come through this program.
There are countless ways to channel your Disney education within the company. If you’re interested in working behind the scenes, check out Disney World Jobs and look for jobs related to Human Resources, Data Analytics, Technology, or Finance & Accounting.
Other outlets include:
- Disney Cruise Line for those looking to work aboard Disney Cruise excursions
- Disney English for those who wish to teach English in China
- Disney Auditions for those who wish to be cast as talent at Disney Parks and Resorts everywhere
Whatever job path you consider, the most essential trait you’ll need to bring with you is a positive attitude. Jennifer describes Disney as the single most positive place she’s ever worked. She also confirms that this positivity can be contagious.
Before graduating with my Ductorate from Disney University, if I was having a bad day, and if you were paying attention, you might actually notice it — and agree. But Disney University gave me a larger worldview. Not only is everything not about me, I learned that very little is. Whether I interact with a dozen people or a thousand people on a given day, I could be a source of negativity or a source of happiness for each person. Disney really taught me to be a source of happiness — and I like to think that now I’m helping make wherever I am a little bit like the Happiest Place on Earth.
While students from every major are eligible to apply for a spot in the Disney College Program, it may help to begin with a relevant degree focus. With that in mind, check out some of the very best schools in the hospitality and culinary industry:
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